I’m walking down Fifth Avenue, on the lookout for a place to eat, when I see a bunch of guys in orange shirts in the distance. They’re coming toward me, their shirts clearly reading a vaguely familiar slogan: “…how many kids did you kill today?” People screamed it to president Lyndon B. Johnson in the days of the Vietnam War. Hey hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today? They scream it now, as another war is raging, but they address the National Rifle Association instead: Hey hey, NRA, how many kids did you kill today?
And they say kids don’t have historical memory. I stop to say hello, take a couple of pictures and move on. Two blocks down, Washington Square is filled with young men and women. They remind me of our singer-songwriter Alfredo Bandelli and one of his anti-war songs: “Today, at the demonstration, I’ve seen many smiling faces, the comrades, 15 years old.”
I have no idea how many there are. The place is massive. But the crowd is so thick that not even a needle would fit between the historical fountain where Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston once sat and sang and the arch at one end of the square.
The night before on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen, in a jeans and shirt outfit, was on the stage with a guitar and piano — he was telling the story of his life, entwined with his songs, like an uncle telling stories to his friends in his living-room. Springsteen has never pretended to be a different age than he is. This is one of the reasons why I’ve always respected him; now that he’s close to his 70s, he’s wise enough to deal with his own story — the father-and-son relationship (my eyes inevitably get watery as he sings “My Father’s House”) and the shocking discovery of rock and roll (“Growing Up”), then Patti Scialfa appears onstage and they sing one of my guilty pleasures, “Tougher than the Rest.” For the first time, I’m close enough to realize she has a beautiful voice, too.
As he’s coming to terms with his past, Springsteen makes us understand this is our story, too; it might be because we’re on Broadway, or because of the ticket price, but the public mainly consists of middle-aged people who’ve grown old with him (at some point he says to tell these things to your children, if they ever care). When he mentions the dark times America is going through, a whole generation is urged to come to terms with his own story and failures. It’s not something bad; before closing the show with “Born to Run,” he surprisingly says a prayer and sings “Long Walk Home” and “Land of Hope and Dreams.” His major strength is that, despite everything, he keeps telling us not to stop hoping and dreaming, and therefore not to stop fighting. He adds that he watched the March For Our Lives after the Parkland massacre in Florida last February. “For an old man like me, this is an inspiration.” As usual, he speaks for both of us.
In Washington Square, “the kids are all right,” as The Who said in their song “My Generation.” Springsteen urged my generation to look at itself in the mirror and pass on the torch to those junior-high school kids shouting “enough is enough.” The handmade banners were all different, from the one reading “I was joking when I said I’d rather die than do my homework,” to the girl who wrote “What does a schoolgirl worry about? First, boys. Second, whether my hair looks good and my makeup is OK. Third, if an armed maniac enters the class and kills us all. Fourth, tomorrow’s test.”
There are black and white people on the stage, boys and girls (mostly), gay and straight. Bandelli used to sing “workers and students”: here you find different colors, genders, sexual orientations and social classes fighting for the same cause.
I teared up listening to “My Father’s House,” and the same thing happens now, as I’m surrounded by these sons and daughters.
No one talks for more than a minute, but everyone has something to say. They’re angry, stubborn, informed. It’s not about an ideology, but rather awareness. They know their limits: they don’t ask for abolition but gun control. They talk of violence against women (hundreds of feminicides), police violence against blacks (Black Lives Matter) and against gay people (Orlando’s massacre last year). A girl says: “I come from a conservative family, but here it’s not about picking a side, it’s a matter of life or death.” A black guy with a Spanish name goes on: “I was not thinking about that until five robbers carrying two guns each broke into my girlfriend’s house and robbed her. Be committed, don’t wait until it happens to someone you love.”
They’re the new masters of communication. They speak in rhythm, even in rhyme sometimes, and perfectly know how to convey the message they want to, with a thick crowd all around them. Some read from a piece of paper, others from their smartphone screen. “Social networks are full of poison and lies, but they are the place where we can find things out and communicate. Use Instagram, use Facebook. Read The New York Times too. But first of all, talk to each other.” A group of kids with orange shirts and a guitar walks onstage. They say that every movement needs a song. They have nice voices and, above all, know what they want: “We’re here to change the world and won’t let you into our lives.”
That afternoon, I spoke about it in a lecture at New York University. A lady told me that they’ll manage to co-opt them, too, or send them down a blind alley. Media and right-wing propagandists are already at work to isolate and taunt them. But to me, they look too different and alive to be put in a cage.
Maybe Bob Dylan was right when, a stone’s throw from here, he said: “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapidly aging. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand.”
And what if, instead of controlling them or rooting for them, we try to follow their inspiration and lend a hand? It’ll be a long walk, but perhaps they may help us get home. Our future is still there.